On the afternoon of Saturday 4 March, the pianist in the Ian Roach Hall played a few bars of the College Song, then rose from the keyboard and walked from the stage into the wings of history. To describe Graeme Bell (’30) as a ‘legend’ is, for once, no exaggeration.
While many of his former band members will have ‘joined the great swing band in the sky’ (as one elderly audience member euphemistically put it on Saturday), their places were ably filled by the brilliant young band, Michael McQuaid’s Red Hot Rhythmakers.
Michael, a superb musician, has transcribed many of the old recordings made by Graeme Bell, with the result that we could all enjoy the authentic sounds live. Graeme himself remarked at one point that it was nearly 70 years since he’d heard one particular piece, and he certainly never expected to hear it (and play it) again! Graeme was highly appreciative of Michael’s excellent work, and was clearly delighted to be performing at Scotch.
‘It is a privilege for me to appear with this band in the great Ian Roach Hall in the fantastic new Forbes Academy at my old School,’ he said. ‘As a young 14 year old, I moved from Deepdene Central School to attend Scotch College in 1929 and 1930, during the period when the authoritarian Scotsman Bill Littlejohn was Principal.
‘They used to publish my pen-and-ink drawings in the school magazine, and one day I was taken into the Head’s study to create cartoons of the football team. One by one these veritable “gods” were paraded before me whilst I did my preparatory sketches.
‘I did not excel at sport, and one day during a cricket match, whilst dreaming in the outfield, a potential boundary landed square on the back of my head, whereupon I was whisked away with concussion. Strangely this only served to strengthen my passion for the game which remains to this day.
‘The saddest day in my young life was when I had to leave Scotch College. There were tears in my eyes at the final speech night. It was during the Depression, and at 16 years I had to join the workforce and earn a living. After many boring years as an insurance clerk and a disastrous stint as a farm hand, I became a professional musician in 1943 and moved to Sydney in 1957.’
Graeme Bell AO MBE has been justifiably called ‘The Father of Australian Jazz’. He has been a great ambassador for Australian jazz. In 1947 he took the first Australian jazz band to Europe, and was also the first Western band leader to take a jazz band into China. As Diana Allen (of Jazz Australia) wrote: ‘Since his early twenties his life has been devoted to the arts. Best known as the most famous jazz band leader that Australia has produced, he is also an admired pianist, not only as a jazz performer but also of the classics, a fine arranger and composer, and a painter.
‘We all felt a great sense of history watching Graeme Bell at 91 joyfully perform his own compositions with Michael McQuaid’s Red Hot Rhythmakers. Graeme played a number of piano solos, some with bass and drums, most sensitively before the last vigorous bracket with the band. The auditorium was full there was also a huge sense of gratitude from the audience as it rose to its feet to salute the ‘Father of Australian Jazz’.
Director of Music
Scotch College: ABN 86 852 826 445 ACN 005 650 395 CRICOS 00624A (Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students)